Seventeen percent of Davos attendees are female this year, and Sheryl Sandberg was one of them. Her explanation for the dearth of women in leadership positions is that they don't "lean in," also the title of her upcoming book, due out in March. "We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in," she writes.
It's sad that so influential a woman couldn't see — and seize — an opportunity to influence the business world to become more gender balanced. She could have used her position as one of the most powerful women in America today to argue to the men at Davos — 83% of the attendees — that women represent an enormous opportunity for business. That they are the majority of the educated talent on the planet, and the majority of consumers and end-users in an ever-widening array of sectors, including her own. That gender balanced leadership teams correlate to superior corporate returns.
Instead, she does what too many successful women before her have done: blaming other women for not trying hard enough. But women in the US now represent the majority of college graduates, the majority of MAs and the majority of PhDs. How much harder do you want them to "lean in"?
It hasn't proven as natural as we all thought for women to break into the leadership ranks of the corporate world. All the companies I work for have learned that gender balance is a result of highly proactive management pushing, not a complacent declaration that outsiders can succeed in the existing system by trying harder.
Sandberg does not serve other women well by pretending that companies are a meritocracy that just requires individual effort. She herself was sponsored and propelled, like almost every successful woman I have ever met, by a powerful man, in her case Larry Summers.
It's tough to lead externally on this subject if you can't make progress internally in your own company. Sandberg is the only woman on Facebook's Executive Team, and the only woman on the company's board (where she was added months after the board's formation), despite the fact that women represent the majority of Facebook users (57%).
Nick Kristof wonders in his New York Times column if she isn't "blaming the victim." She is. Unfortunately, her argument carries clout. Every resistant man on the planet will be able to quote her. Women must simply become more ambitious, more assertive, more... male. Then maybe we can promote them.
In the meantime, the most gender balanced companies on the planet are mostly led by men, who thankfully seem to believe more in reaching out to women than Sandberg does. This is what smart women really need. Companies and leaders who believe in them and give them a seat at the table, even if they don't bang on it.